Over the past year in Lebanon, more and more women have been speaking up about being harassed or treated unfairly, and they’re claiming their rights and making an impact. Women are starting to feel more empowered and are striving for change. But when it comes to sexual harassment in the workplace, more still needs to be done.
What is sexual harassment in the workplace?
Sexual harassment is a form of gender-based violence and discrimination based on sex. It involves any explicit or implicit act of a sexual nature, in whatever form, that is unwelcome, unwanted and makes the other person feel offended, insulted, intimidated, humiliated, threatened or afraid.
There are two main types of sexual harassment: (i) Hostile work environment, created due to unwelcome and repeated suggestions or propositions, or one shocking act of a sexual nature; and (ii) Quid pro quo harassment where a professional opportunity is conditioned on some kind of sexual performance in favor of the harasser or a third party.
Sexual harassment can be detrimental for the economy, as it creates toxic work atmospheres which can lead to lower productivity, higher turnover rates, and absenteeism. It also leads to low self-esteem, demotivation, anxiety, and even depression at the level of the victims of such acts.
In December 2020, the Lebanese Parliament passed a landmark law against sexual harassment in December 2020 called Law #205. The World Bank supported the passing of this law by working through its Mashreq Gender Facility with the National Commission for Lebanese Women (NCLW) and other stakeholders. The law criminalizes sexual harassment and creates a special fund at the Ministry of Social Affairs for the rehabilitation of the victims. In addition to pressing criminal charges, employers and organizations can now impose disciplinary measures, and victims of sexual harassment can seek additional compensation for damages caused.
As Claudine Aoun Roukoz, President of the NCLW, explains, “This law is a first step in the right direction towards not only realizing women’s economic participation but also empowering women to advocate themselves.” While the passing of Law #205 remains a major achievement, there are still some cultural and practical factors that are constraining the implementation of the law.
One of these factors is that the topic of sexual harassment is taboo: Making jokes, victim shaming or downplaying certain situations prevent victims from reporting, speaking up, or taking action.
Another factor is cultural misconception of sexual harassment: Words commonly used every day may often blur the line between being “friendly” and being “harassment,” such as “habibi” and “hayete” (meaning my love or my dear). The law remains subjective on the definition of such terms as harassment, and therefore the same incident might be experienced differently from one person to the other.
Thus, one constraint to the implementation of the law is that the burden of proof lies with the plaintiff who must prove that sexual harassment ‘actually’ occurred, which is often difficult.
Given that sexual harassment is a fairly ‘new’ concept under the law and because Law 205 was only recently enacted, no case law or precedent exists for judges and lawyers to use yet. It will probably take years for the law to generate sufficient precedents on practical examples of sexual harassment in the workplace and their legal consequences.
Therefore, a holistic approach needs to be adopted simultaneously to properly combat sexual harassment, and it is comprised of four fronts: legislative, organizational, social and educational.
Legal: It is important to mainstream the prohibition of sexual harassment in other laws, such as the Labor Code. Also, to ease the burden of proof, victims need to know how to safely document legally admissible evidence of sexual harassment. Raising awareness and providing training to judges and lawyers for implementation is key.
Organizational: Institutions and companies need to jump on board and develop tailored internal policies including internal conflict resolution methods, reporting mechanisms, grievance procedures, investigations and proportional disciplinary measures. The role of the Ministry of Labor is crucial in incentivizing employers to put such policies in place and enforce their implementation. Workplaces should engage in training and awareness programs with a zero tolerance and a “speak up” culture.
Education and social norms: Awareness and education are vitally important, and should start at a young age, when the notions of gender roles and shame start developing. Young girls and boys should be educated on body positivity, respecting one another, and protecting boundaries of personal safety. Young girls and boys should be taught healthy coping strategies and the ability to stand up for themselves.
Creating and maintaining working environments that are free from sexual harassment is a long fight and will need joint efforts of numerous stakeholders in Lebanon to overcome. The World Bank Mashreq Gender Facility is committed to helping Lebanon combat this issue.